It’s official and in writing… Ann Roth, Oscar award winning costume designer for stage and film, knows I’m an actress and wishes me the best; I can boast a signed copy of the monograph, The Designs of Anne Roth, by Holly Poe Durbin and Bonnie Kruger; and I can now place a sassy, unapologetic presence to the name I’d previously only been able to read about! Shameless self-promotion aside, I feel the need to share what I learned just by hanging out in the Drama Book Shop on a Thursday night in New York City.
As an actor I must ask myself “what do other characters say about my character?” So in getting to know Ann Roth, let me also ask… “what have other people said about Ann Roth?”
Meryl Streep described the “inexhaustible curiosity and collaborative spunk” that Roth brings to a project in her introduction at the American Theatre Hall of Fame awards in 2012. Streep claimed Roth as her “friend” and went on to say that Roth,
[D]oesn’t just design clothes, she becomes the muse of the project… a video-biographer of characters… she writes a book in her head… on each individual character in the story she can tell you what that person has on their bedside table… how many sugars they take… where their mother was raised and why they comb their hair to the left instead of the right, she has an unstoppable imagination.
In asking Roth what it feels like to discover a character with an actor I was given a simple answer. It makes her happy when the actor is happy and the director is happy. I began to sense that this artistic process is quite difficult to describe, however, as Roth (who stated that she is not an intellectual designer) made an effort to share a story instead.
One of the routines to find a character with an actor that Roth finds to be a “pleasant and wonderful experience” starts with a vision, meticulous research, searching for and/or crafting costume items and then introducing pieces of the costume to an actor in front of the mirror. Roth might suggest a pair of shoes to start and the actor sees some other vision in the mirror that releases her to go further and try on other items “or a higher heel or maybe this, or maybe that”. Eventually Roth witnesses a character coming into the room and “it’s like stand back everybody and let her breathe”.
I quite liked how human Roth was in describing her view of actors – especially considering she’s worked with the cream of the crop. It makes sense that many of these actors also call Ann Roth their friend. “I think of [the actor] as the character he’s playing… an actor has to step up to the moment.” It reminded me that regardless of a person’s role in a film or theatre production, when given a character in a script I have the choice to buy into a humbling and collective understanding that the job is to tell a story together. I received this reminder from a small conversation with Roth tonight… but people like Mike Nichols who sign up to work with Roth over and over say she is “the invisible hand”.